Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Maypole dance — but first do tasks


May Day, or May 1, has been celebrated in many countries of the northern hemisphere for centuries in many different ways and with varying intentions. For example, in England, May Day is a celebration of springtime fertility, including that of soil, and is a time when seeding of new crops is completed. To celebrate, community members dance around a pole, traditionally referred to as the maypole. Since I haven't completed spring planting, I'm not about to dance around anything.

Yes, seeds of peas and many other hardy crops, i.e. spinach, kale, carrots and radishes, have been sown, but there is still much planting to be done, as well as other gardening tasks. Therefore, after a few circuits around the maypole, put away your dancing shoes and get on with these tasks:

• Begin harvesting rhubarb by simultaneously tugging and twisting the leaf stalk. In this way, the complete stalk comes free from the crown of the plants. Some people prefer to cut the stalk but that leaves a fleshy bit of attached stalk which offers an opportunity for disease-causing fungi to enter the plant.

After harvesting the stalks, cut off the leaf blade and toss it on the compost pile. The leaves of rhubarb contain oxalic acid, a compound toxic to humans. If you're in doubt about tossing rhubarb leaves on the compost pile, don't be; oxalic acid will break down as the leaves decay.

• No rhubarb? Buy rhubarb crowns and plant them now. Prepare the site prior to planting by working in plenty of compost or rotted manure. Set the crowns into the soil about 4 inches deep. Do not harvest any stalks this first year. In subsequent years, harvest may continue through mid-June.

• Set raspberry plants 30 inches apart when planting. Spacing between rows should be at least six feet. Plant an ever-bearing variety, e.g. "Heritage," for fall harvests and at least one variety of summer-bearing raspberry. "Taylor" and "Latham" are good choices for New England gardens. On a cautious note, do not plant raspberries where potatoes, tomatoes or eggplant have been grown within three years. This is to avoid problems with wilt disease.

• Work in an organic fertilizer with an analysis similar to 5-10-5 or 5-10-10 at product label rates feet prior to planting annuals and/or perennials in the flower garden.

• Plant roses while the weather is still cool and soil is moist. Picking fool-proof roses for New England can be a thorny task. I get a little nervous about recommending roses because some people can get rather prickly if they don't work out. However, a family of roses called Knockout seems to come as close to fool-proof as any I've seen. They are quite hardy, disease-resistant and need little pruning unless grown to be a hedge.

• Be nice to the birds when adding shrubs to your home landscape. The primary needs of birds are food and shelter. Evergreens, such as spruce and hemlock and thickets of dogwood, can provide shelter while fruit bearing shrubs — elderberry, chokeberry, cotoneaster, and American cranberry — will keep birds fed. Just don't stand under a tree where a well-fed bird is perched.

• Plant shade-tolerant perennials that have interesting foliage and texture. It's tough to find shade plants with long-lasting flowers. So, plant perennials with attractive leaves and textures. Variegated Jacob's ladder, coral bells, lady's mantle, Japanese painted fern, spotted dead nettle, hosta and variegated hakonechloa fit the bill nicely.

• Set up a rain barrel beneath a downspout. I don't dare predict the weather for the rest of the growing season, but despite a few showers this week, it has been somewhat dry thus far. It is a wise gardener who prepares for the worst.


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